In Conversation With ... Melissa Goins
on the 25th anniversary of FRYSCs
Kentucky School Advocate
Q. The FRYSCs (pronounced friskies) system has grown through the years. How many FRYSCs are currently in the system?
A. We have 823 centers in 168 school districts that cover almost 1,200 schools. A lot of centers serve multiple schools.
Q. What is FRYSCs’ primary focus?
A. We are there to remove noncognitive barriers to learning.
Q. How are the centers funded?
A. It is based on free-lunch counts. If you have more kids with free lunch, you get more money and if you have less, you get less.
Q. Has the system expanded in recent years?
A. No. We came to a point in 2008 where we were spreading the money so thin it was almost impossible to operate a full-time center based on our minimum allocation. So the decision was made to put a pause on any new centers and sustain the ones we had.
Q. Are there schools that qualify for centers that don’t have them?
A. We have had about 33 new schools apply but we have not been able to fund them.
Q. It appears that funding is not keeping up with need?
A. Our funding has stayed flat, which we are thankful for. It has maintained, but our need is increasing. We would love to not have to split schools. Ideally, one school would have one center, but we have some schools that share a center so that the coordinator might spend two days at one school and three at another. When you have one person trying to cover 1,200-1,600 students – that’s a lot.
Q. Most of the budget is for staffing?
A. About half of the centers spend over 70 percent of their allocation on salaries. The coordinator is the most important part – you can’t have services if you don’t have someone to coordinate them. A lot of our school districts have to add district funding because they don’t get enough funding to pay for the position.
Q. You have said that Kentucky’s program has a high number of long-term employees?
A. A lot have been around 20 to 25 years and so this anniversary is certainly important for them. Many were around in the beginning, trying to feel their way around and figure out what their role was because the program was different and it was new. FRYSCs are one of the only pieces left of the original KERA.
Q. Kentucky’s FRYSC system has been around a long time. Do others look to it as a model?
A. Yes. In the past year, we have had two national visits from the Center for Popular Democracy and the National Education Association. They visited centers in Lexington and in eastern Kentucky and were interested in how our funding is set up. Kentucky is the only state with a network of centers that are state-funded. It is hard for some states to wrap their head around the fact that we had such a commitment to education 25 years ago.
Q. The 25th anniversary is an important milestone. What is being done to mark the occasion?
A. On March 10 we had the Rally at the Rotunda to mark the anniversary. And, each of our 11 FRYSC regions and their advisory councils are planning celebrations. That way they can do it their own way.
Q. What will these celebrations be like?
A. A lot of FRYSCs are inviting their community partners to talk about emerging trends and how their FRYSCs have responded and how they continue to respond and work as a unit with the community. That is really what we are all about – connecting with people in the community and decreasing barriers for students.
Q. Who ends up partnering with FRYSCs?
A. We partner with everybody. Health-care organizations and providers, civic groups like the Lions Club, local businesses that make donations and those within the school system who run programs like after-school care.
Q. How has the role of FRYSCs changed?
A. Coordinators who have been around for a number of years would probably say there is more emphasis on aspects of their job like behavioral health, which includes mental health and substance use. A number of trends have led to that increased emphasis. For example, our youth suicide rate nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015 and we have more than 8,000 kids in out-of-home care.
Q. Is there one social issue that is causing more problems for students and their families right now?
A. Yes, substance abuse and the tentacles of that issue. For example, it leads to out-of-home care placements – Kentucky has one of the highest rates of relatives raising a child. Within the last year, we have had more than 40 of our centers start support groups for relatives who are providing out-of-home care. You really don’t understand all the effects of substance abuse until you work with kids and the families who are dealing with these issues.
Q. What services are most requested?
A. Requests for services are driven by the needs of each particular school and schools are all so different. So the work of a center in Louisville doesn’t look like that of a center in rural Pikeville or western Kentucky.
Q. But they all work within a similar framework?
A. Yes, all are required to have planned programming that is related to components that we establish each year, so they do start off with a game plan. But they also have to handle the things that come through the door. And, each evaluates the needs of their school by doing needs assessments every year with parents and students. So they start off every year with a plan of how they will spend their time and money.
Q. Can you provide some examples?
A. Based on the needs indicated in their school data, a coordinator might plan activities focused on substance abuse or out-of-home care. Also, at the micro level, we are always going to have kids with basic needs, and although that is not our primary focus, there is always going to be a need for things like the backpack snack program or a clothes closet in an elementary school. Families fall on hard times and jobs are lost. We are there to connect families with resources they need.
Q. Do you feel that the people understand the role of FRYSCs?
A. I am always surprised at the number of people who are familiar with their FRYSC. Parents, especially those who are volunteers in the schools, know about their school’s FRYSC coordinator because they coordinate volunteers. Coordinators do home visits and wellness checks. They serve on a lot of community boards.
Q. You point out that FRYSCs tend to get more notice for basic services like back-to-school bashes and the Angel Trees gift programs at the holidays than for the really difficult social ails that they tackle.
A. The basic needs issues are always going to be there, but I would like to see us look more at what FRYSCs can do about the trends like suicide rates, incarcerated parents and out-of-home care because that’s really where FRYSCs can hit hard with major prevention and support.
Q. How do the centers share information with one another?
A. We have two statewide conferences a year. We share a lot about what their peers are doing but we also share best practices. Ideas also come from our various advisory councils. Each FRYSC has its own advisory council and each of our regions has an advisory council made up of FRYSC coordinators from the region. We do a lot of communicating from the ground up.
Q. If you had more funding how would you want it to be spent? What are the biggest unmet needs?
A. Two things. I would like to fund the centers that meet the eligibility requirement, and I would love to raise our minimum and maximum allocations. We have schools out there with 600 to 700 kids on free lunch and they just need more bodies to coordinate their needs. The minimum allocation right now is $28,000, so it is really hard to hire a staff person with that budget, much less have anything left for operating funds.
Q. If you were going to sum up “The State of the FRYSCs” what would you say?
A. That it is amazing how much they are doing with how little they have, and that it is also amazing what percentage of the workforce has stayed for so long and continued to change and adapt to the needs in their school. I think it is a beautiful structure and that every school should have one.